The Anglicans call their manual of corporate worship The Book of Common Prayer. By prayer they mean worship, and by common prayer they mean primarily the worship of the community, especially the whole church on the Lord’s Day.
There is biblical precedent for using the term “prayer” as a synonym for the church’s corporate worship. That is very likely its meaning in Acts 6:4 (where it occurs with the article: the apostles’ responsibilities were “the prayer and the ministry of the Word”; that is, the historic responsibilities of the Old Testament priesthood, preaching and the superintendence of the worship of God’s people).
Calling our worship together on the Lord’s Day “prayer” reminds us that we are, from the beginning to the end, to be in prayer, which John Knox defined as “earnest and familiar talking with God.” We are to be conscious of his presence, singing our praises directly to him, offering our prayers in the confidence that he will hear and answer, listening to his Word believing that he is speaking by his Holy Spirit in the Word and through the preacher, expecting, when we come to the Table of the Lord, that Christ himself will be present by his Holy Spirit to feed and nourish our faith. Keeping Sunday worship prayer is what keeps it real worship!
When many years ago we eliminated the traditional “pastoral prayer” and introduced into our Sunday morning liturgy our present practice of congregational petitions, in the bulletin we identified that new element of the service as “congregational prayers.” One criticism we heard, however, was that those prayers contained only petitions and did not include the other elements of a proper biblical prayer, namely, adoration and confession of sins. We pointed out that we had already, earlier in the liturgy, given our praise to God in the singing of hymns and had already confessed our sins in a corporate prayer of confession.
But we discovered that folk were not used to thinking of a hymn as a prayer. It didn’t seem to them a prayer because it was sung and, perhaps, because no matter what the words of a hymn may have been, they had not been reminded that they were to sing those words to God. It was even hard for them to think of a corporate confession as a prayer in the accepted sense because it was not what they were used to thinking prayer is. In response to that early confusion we changed the title of that element in the order of service to “congregational petitions” precisely to make clear that the prayers offered at that time were only one dimension of the prayer of which the service was composed.
If the worship service is common prayer then it should have the biblical elements of prayer in it: ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication or petition). It should be helpful to all of us to remember as we begin worship on the Lord’s Day that everything in the service will be either our speaking to God or His speaking to us! It is in this conversation that our relationship with our Maker and our Savior is renewed each week.
All of this is a reminder how powerfully liturgical traditions shape our understanding of what we do in church. We all close our eyes to pray though the Bible never tells us to do so. There may be a very good reason to close our eyes – no doubt to shut out all distractions – but, our custom being to pray with eyes closed, if our eyes are open to sing a hymn we are less inclined to think of it as prayer.
Dr. Buswell, former president of Wheaton College, then long-time professor of theology in our Covenant Theological Seminary, used to pray with his eyes open. I remember as a boy opening my eyes during one of his long prayers in church and finding him looking right at me! No one who heard Dr. Buswell’s prayers would ever have thought that he was distracted from his conversation with God because he kept his eyes open. Well, so it is with corporate prayers, whether sung or said. Having eyes open does not make them any less prayers.
There are only two ways for a congregation to pray together. Both methods of corporate prayer are taught and illustrated many times in the Bible and we employ both in our worship. Either the text for the congregation’s prayer is provided so they can offer it as one or one person prays for the whole and the congregation joins in the “Amen.” The opening and closing silent prayers, hymns, and the corporate confession are prayers of the former type and the invocation, congregational petitions, the prayer before the preaching of the Word, and the prayer at the Lord’s Supper are prayers of the latter type. The point is they are all prayers, in every case we are speaking directly to God.
Relatively recently we introduced the practice of singing an “Amen” only after hymns in which there is found direct address to God. It is a way of reminding us over and over again that a hymn is very often a prayer and that while singing we should be conscious that we are addressing God. Even when there is no direct address to God in the text of the hymn, however, the hymn is still a prayer in a secondary sense. Even if we are speaking to one another, or confessing our faith, or, as sometimes in the Psalms, urging upon ourselves a spirit of worship or obedience, we are saying all of these things coram Deo, in God’s presence, and with the Lord as our witness. If we are not speaking to the Lord, we are speaking for the Lord and with the Lord as our witness. We intend for him to hear what we say.
Worship is prayer. When we are worshipping we are at prayer. Remembering this is an important means of cultivating both the engagement of our minds and hearts in all that we do and that living sense that God is present both to receive and to respond to our worship. We come to church on the Lord’s Day for an audience with the Almighty.